The episode opens on a hazy kaleidoscope of images as we see Christopher meeting the most important women in his life – Sylvia and Valentine. As he struggles to remember his name the images resolve themselves into a stark horrible image of Christopher’s wounded and bloody eye blinking open. He’s in a military hospital, battered and bleeding, shell shocked with a concussion and quite unable to remember his own name. The horrors of war are conveyed with a few simple strokes – the sounds of the bombs falling overhead, the soldier so crazed by what he has gone through that he tries to choke Christopher to death, the no nonsense nurse so used to seeing people in Christopher’s condition that her expression barely flickers as she tries to calm him.
But that’s all that we see from the front this week as the episode instead revolves around the effects of the war on those Christopher has left behind.
Sylvia, clad regally in deepest purple starts the episode with a shocking lack of patriotism. While her husband is fighting for his life overseas she wafts into a shop bedecked obscenely with tempting beautiful food and orders a huge array of treats – not for herself but for the German officers in the prisoner of war camp in London. She seems to view the war as a minor irritance. Conversely Valentine has worked herself up into quite the lather of righteous indignation over the horror of war and British soldiers and German soldiers murdering each other. Macmaster meanwhile has (rather hastily) married Mrs Duchemin following the suicide of her husband and is desperately trying to find some way of avoiding the trenches – his cowardice being called out by the arrival of a white feather in the post. Brownlie (Jamie Parker in full on rotter mode), another would be lover of Sylvia’s is actively pursuing her and keen to destroy poor Christopher by any means necessary.
And it is into this particularly toxic environment that Christopher returns. Shell shocked, traumatised and achingly vulnerable with shaking hands and a tremulous voice poor Chrissy not only has to cope with the horrors that the war has wreaked upon his body and mind but also the thousand petty jealousies and nonsense of those fools who surround him at home.
Christopher is beset by gossip spread initially by the slanderous Lady Claudine while the men in Sylvia’s life do their very best to ruin his career and reputation. Mrs Duchemin (now Macmaster) reveals to an incredulous Valentine that “there is not a more discredited man in London” than Christopher. Drake, the man Sylvia was involved with before Christopher and who is probably the father of her son has limited Christopher’s career by marking his record that he is not to be trusted with confidential information. Sylvia’s actions sending food to the prisoner of war camp have her marked as a German sympathiser causing Christopher untold problems. His kindness in lending Macmaster funds so that he could buy his own lodgings is twisted into a nasty tale whereby he and Macmaster share Mrs Duchemin as their mistress. Brownlie, very much in love with the utterly indifferent Sylvia (who nonetheless does not help matters by flirting shamelessly) essentially labels Christopher a bankrupt by dishonouring his checks to his mess and club (his pay from the government was late) destroying his reputation at a single stroke. Most damning is the suggestion that he got Valentine pregnant before the war. Even when something good happens – his brain recovers enough to solve a complex problem for Macmaster it does him no good at all – serving only to get Macmaster a knighthood and keep him out of the trenches.
It’s bad enough that Christopher has to cope with those infatuated with Sylvia and mean gossips trying to ruin him but even worse is that his family accepts the nonsense being spewed about him hook, line and sinker. His father, dismayed at the gossip being spread about Christopher by fellows at the club encourages his brother Mark to employ Ruggles to find out about him. Ruggles dutifully reports back all the scurrilous gossip which is passed on by Mark to his crest fallen father. His father is devastated to learn about Christopher’s wrong doings and so distressed that Groby will go to the illegitimate son of a “papist” that he shoots himself. You can’t help but feel that the Tietjens would have made life a lot easier for themselves if they’d just spent 10 minutes talking to Christopher! Killing yourself over a variety of falsehoods is extraordinary behaviour.
The central love triangle continues to bewitch and you do find your sympathies switching somewhat between Valentine and Sylvia. Sylvia is a law unto herself – not exactly discouraging the attentions of others and capable of extraordinarily selfish acts and yet she does seem to truly love her husband. She treats a confused and vulnerable Christopher with such immense tenderness and tells him that she wears her Saint Anthony for him while he is away praying that he will return safely to her. She knows Christopher inside and out openly mocking all the tales of mistresses and illegitimate children. She is clearly threatened by Valentine – warning her to “keep off the grass” and seems openly hurt when Christopher somewhat ungallantly allows two men to drive Sylvia home from Macmaster’s party rather accompany her himself as he wants to stay with Valentine.
Sylvia is so desperate to provoke an emotional reaction from Christopher. She rails against him in a later scene commenting on how he probably feels he’s never done a dishonourable act in his life. She wants him to be passionate, to fight for her, to call her a whore and she is lost when he simply looks at her with immense kindness and tells her that he never disapproved of her actions. At that point she is done and tells him so – she won’t listen to him again.
And when he fails to seduce Valentine Sylvia screams her anguish into the night ripping her St Anthony from her neck. In her eyes at least if he had taken Valentine as a mistress that would have shown her that he was capable of passion that he was still alive. It’s a terrible relationship – they love each other and Christopher shows Sylvia nothing but infinite kindness but he won’t fight for her, won’t judge her – she doesn’t stir passion in him and she knows it and it’s killing her. They torment each other every day they remain married.
Meanwhile sweet, lovely Valentine is waiting for her chance to be with Christopher. He is all adorable, adolescent teenage boy when he bumps into her unexpectedly at her mothers and delighted to be by her side at Macmaster’s party. Their subsequent meeting is lovely as she awkwardly asks whether Duchemin is his mistress and he looks at her utterly bewildered that she even had to ask. “You know me” he says incredulously. Finally wanting to do something wonderful for himself for a change Christopher awkwardly asks Valentine to be his mistress and she wholeheartedly agrees only for the fates to curse them again when they are prevented by the arrival of Valentine’s brother and friends. Their parting scene as Valentine promises to be there for him after he returns from the war is gloriously romantic.
It’s a fascinating love triangle. You should be firmly rooting for Valentine. But I confess while we are told that Valentine is Christopher’s intellectual equal and Sylvia very much not the strength of Hall’s performance as Sylvia does rather make it seem the other way around. Adelaide Clemens is perfectly sweet and lovely as Valentine but she does seem very desperately young compared to Hall and Cumberbatch who themselves have quite extraordinary chemistry. The sheer force of Hall’s screen presence and the quicksilver nature of her portrayal of Sylvia does mean that you have a good deal more sympathy for Sylvia than perhaps you are meant to. I want Christopher to be happy with Valentine. But equally I want him to tell all of Sylvia’s would be suitors to sod off, take Sylvia back properly and whaltz her and Michael off to Groby where they can all be happy together.
Cumberbatch is again utterly superb. Portraying a very closed off man at his most openly vulnerable he is quite extraordinary to watch. The sequence where dead-eyed and lost in the horrors of his memories he describes to Sylvia what happened to him in the war describing the various sounds the shells make is incredibly upsetting to watch and would make even the hardest of hearts weep
“Sometimes they come towards towards you in a thoughtful sort of way…another kind makes a sound like tearing calico louder and louder…such immense explosions to kill such small weak animals.”
He also has great chemistry with Rupert Everett as his brother Mark who wonderfully gets far more screentime in this episode.
Elsewhere the beautiful musical score continues to beguile and I’m enjoying Anne Marie Duff’s performance as Mrs Duchemin – from nervous harried wife of a madman to the sort of hideous snob who can repeat the nonsense about Chrissy to Valentine’s face even though she knows in her heart it’s a lie.
Beautifully directed and acted Parade’s End continues to be the classiest television programme of the year.